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Shayna Connelly: Exploring hauntings through story and film

Shayna Connelly, CDM faculty
A filmmaker based in Chicago, Shayna Connelly's work explores hauntings, liminality and the boundaries between documentary, experimental and fiction filmmaking. (DePaul University/Jeff Carrion)
It all started with a library book about Haunted Houses. Shayna Connelly’s fascination with ghosts turned into a full-fledged film career, and today she’s an associate professor of film and television in the College of Computing and Digital Media. A member of the DePaul community for 10 years, Connelly recently completed the last two films in a collection of eight shorts that examines the ways ghosts and hauntings affect our daily lives. 

How did you first get into filmmaking?

I was in Germany as an exchange student and ended up staying three years longer than I was supposed to. Because I learned German as a young adult, I was particularly interested in linguistics and communication. Throughout my studies I began to get frustrated with the program there; it was a good program, but it wasn’t really what I wanted to do. Eventually I decided I’d had it with words and what I really was interested in were pictures. I’d always been interested in film, so I thought I’d give that a try.

After I left there, I came back to the states to finish my BA so I could apply to graduate schools for film production. That eventually brought me to Chicago – I went to Columbia College down the street.

Where does your interest in hauntings come from?

When I was little, I lived a block away from a library. There I found a book called “Haunted Houses,” and it was in the nonfiction section of the slightly older kids books – so in my mind very cool. I loved this book. It had a lot of pictures of some very famous ghost photography and all this amazing ghost lore. I thought it was the best. I was obsessed. I would keep renewing it until they made me turn it in, then I would sit and wait until it was re-shelved and check it out again. That’s really how things started with me. 

The ghosts in my stories, however, tend not to be frightening. I’m much more afraid of humans than I am of ghosts. My ghosts aren’t exactly friendly, but they’re also not malevolent, scary, spooky characters. In all of my ghost story films, my main character has a concrete relationship with the ghost. 

What is it about ghosts and hauntings that draws people in?

I think ghosts really represent everything that we don’t know and don’t understand. They represent the poetic and lyrical things in life, which keep us hoping and wondering. Ghosts also connect us to the sublime. 

Are there any misconceptions when it comes to ghosts and hauntings?

Everyone has their personal beliefs, which I think are less interesting than a sense of exploration.
There also are different ways of defining ghosts. Some are the typical after-image of something – a spirit of a deceased person. But you can think of ghosts in a more metaphoric way, too. As humans, we’re haunted by a lot of different things – heartbreak, grief, loss of all sorts, personal and collective trauma.

Ghosts also connect us to history. Many times people don’t connect ghosts to their personal, social or collective history – another way ghosts are misunderstood.

You work a lot of with student artists at DePaul. What’s the best part of that?

The students I’ve worked with at DePaul have all been interested in exploring processes. From footage I recently shot with a student cinematographer, I made two films. That student was very open to essentially walking around and exploring the city with a camera, which is not a traditional way of making a film, at all.

I find students are open and up for trying all sorts of different things. They’re not inhibited about their creative work. They also are trying to find their own voice, which is interesting to observe. Our students work hard and are so talented. 

You recently completed a shorts collection. What’s next?

Yes, I finished the collection, “A Memory Palace for Ghosts,” and hope to begin touring with that soon. I’m screening them as a visiting professor next month. 

I’m making what I consider a palette cleanser. It’s a documentary character portrait about my daughter. And it’s comedy! Very different from what I’ve done before. We’ve shot that already; I worked with another DePaul student crew. I’m going to edit that during the intersession, and that will be my film to submit for the 2020 festival cycle.